Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Merton, Tolkien, Buddhism & Second Languages

Alongside Tolkien (Merton College, Oxford), at twelve I found Thomas Merton. "The Seven Storey Mountain" beckoned me into a realm nearly as remote as Middle-Earth: the last ties to the Western Middle Ages-- as its Dantesque purgatorial title hinted. Evelyn Waugh excised "Eternal Silence" as its British edition, a rare reversal of the usual assumption Americans won't grasp an allusion. But I doubt if they did.) By the time I'd read SSM, as with LotR, publishers had long promoted a proto-countercultural bestseller. Merton, like Tolkien, found his search turned a guidebook into exotic, romanticized, and misunderstood representations by the rest of us, who still yearned as they did for escape, facing modern tensions of withdrawal from the secular world into the more austere, yet wondrous and even mystical, terrain of the imagination.

"Merton & Buddhism," not only as a scholarly anthology I reviewed recently (I warn you: lots of self-referentiality today), but as ideological intersection, intrigues me. Merton battled his cravings for fame, the world's most famous hermit; I think now of the Dalai Lama as the globe's celebrity monk. It's hard to recall a time when Merton's fame outshone the Dalai Lama's, but this was true when Merton in his "Asian Journal" wrote "Our real journey is interior," three months before his sudden death.

Many argue over this complicated man's legacy, the Cistercian recluse who vowed to start Tibetan ritual homage during his final months of life. Yet, charity and a reading of "Merton & Buddhism" reveal a more nuanced picture of how Merton sought to reconcile his excitement with dharma against his commitment as a priest. Perhaps his death came at a merciful time, exactly half the span spent as a Trappist as he had before he entered the cloister. He returned outside to a part of the globe, however, unimaginable in 1941. Halfway across the world, he'd depart from it unpredictably.

"Not all who wander are lost," mused Tolkien. "The Monsters & the Critics," reviewed by me last March 2nd, reminded me on re-reading it about Tolkien's power to retrieve from "asterisk reality" the glimpsed sense of the intangible. As with Merton, Tolkien tapped a Catholic energy that stimulated his soul to write and dream and dazzle the rest of us. Even when Merton writes of Zen or Tolkien of elves, you glimpse the mystic within the shroud. They believed sacramental power charged our ordinary currents.

As I wrote last March:
[JRRT called this] "star-spangled grammar." (237) As his son and editor Christopher explains: "the reference is to enquiry into the forms of words before the earliest records; in those studies the conventional practice is to place an asterisk before hypothetical, deduced forms." (n. 3, 240)
Upon this structure he built his magnificent mythology. (He left lots of fragments for Christopher's excavation with a patience similar to the reassemblers of Dead Sea scrolls; Tolkienia perhaps often about as interesting as those outside the Essene circle would find shards and scraps among shredded drafts).

This accretion, so many pursuing and adding to a core text and a coherent narrative, reminds me now of Buddhism, as well as Catholicism. Christian recovery by tale-telling rooted in etymology fits what Tolkien argued, as I've summarized: it "liberates us and even provides glimpses of the 'eucatastrophe' of the Gospels, the happy ending of the Resurrection Story that men wish so much to be truly true." How can this be? Many scholars pursued this essay's conclusion back through Tolkien's stories and into vast theological legacies. By not contrast so much as progress, or academic need to find fresh excavation, a few have considered "Buddhist Tolkien"; medievalists and Christian literary critics who dominate Tolkien scholarship may have considered the underlying point Tolkien makes within the context of Buddhism and its lack of essentialism. This perspective's out of my ken, as a non-obsessed polite admirer of LotR, so I appended a few URLs for the curious.

Similarly, as Donald S. López in his 2008 book "Buddhism & Science" labors to prove, both our understanding of physics and that of the dharma rest on ground where we, unlike Dead Sea archaeologists or Tolkien dissertators, cannot burrow. We tend towards facile claims of "dancing Wu-Li masters," "Zen & the Art of---" phrases to equate sub-atomic particles with "shunyata," yet we forget the Buddha's warning that we cannot express the inexpressible, nor must we cling to such dual non-dualities. Maybe as with waves and particles, we need the binary life-death, on-off switch to power systems, mental or networked, electrical both, while the energy itself hums and Oms/ Ohms in a unnameable and inaccessible dimension beyond even the kabbalistic "ein sof" of "no limits." (See another unacknowledged influence on the account I discuss below by Jeffery Paine. Rodger Kamenetz explored the Ju-Bu junction in "The Jew in the Lotus," also reviewed by me on this blog and on Amazon US recently.)

It's the lack of this foundation, the ultimate changeability, impermanence, and evanescence beyond even terms such as "shunyata" or "emptiness" or waves of light on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays and particles on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays that leaves us investigators, trained in asserting the empirical, the documented, the repeatable in a lab or the retrieved in an archive, silent. (Not sure what happens to light on the Lord's Day, but if He made it, He should know.)

Tolkien's gift of invention grounded him yet allowed him to take flight. He was able to be the tenured linguist by day and the fervent creator by night, scribbling on the back of those blue book exams he graded for extra money. I find that he ruined me for other modern fantasy. For me, C.S. Lewis falls far short in Narnia of the genius his fellow coalbiter and Inkling who drank beside him at the Eagle & Child. Still, both men as with peers such as Charles Williams and Dorothy Sayers shared in true love of the sources "Tollers" used as the inspiration around which to create his Middle Earth. Yet, he knew as a devout Catholic that he could only make a Secondary World, and bowed to His Maker in homage.

For Merton, bowing and meditating for twenty-seven years before he made his pilgrimage to Asia in search of Buddhist dialogue, the substitution of prostrations before a statue or icon may not have smacked of the idolatry that, say, a Quaker or a beatnik might have attributed to such a posture, physically or spiritually. I've written about Merton on my blog here in scattered fashion. I realize how much SSM at twelve alongside LotR formed me.

So, without gallivanting into previously contemplated matters, but in search of lively comparisons, I'll return to the passage that started me thinking again about Merton, Buddhism, Catholicism, Tolkien, language, medievalism, and me. I reviewed Jeffery Paine's "Re-Enchantment: Tibetan Buddhism Comes to the West" on Amazon US and this blog. Many previous reviewers of Paine uncritically praised this popular account. Although I found woeful typos and underdocumented discussions discouraging me despite the blurbs by breathless admirers on book jacket and as posted on Amazon, I did admire the metaphors Paine often employed.

He opens his narrative reminding us: in 1968, the Dalai Lama was still so relatively obscure that Merton initially dismissed even meeting with a man he regarded as the equivalent of a curial flunky, a Vatican puppet. His liaison, Harold Talbott, whose own story rivals Merton's or His Holiness (the lama not the pope this time around) for sheer surprise, was with Robert Thurman at that time probably the only American seeker who'd been initiated into Tibetan monastic practice. Paine stresses appropriately even as of late '68, despite Maharashis and Beatles, how comparatively isolated continued Tibetan teachings, remote from even the counterculture who'd taken Merton to heart and, for a while in postwar America, filled Trappist novitiates with eager dropouts frustrated with war, nukes, Frigidaire, and Ford.

He then segues into the vast difference fifty-odd years later. Merton's insight that he could stay a Catholic while becoming a Buddhist-- as Talbott's own testimony quoted in "Merton & Buddhism" insists he was intent on doing in these crucial months before his eerie electrocution in Bangkok not long after he'd received suddenly advanced "phowa" teachings on death from the lamas he met and immediately connected with beyond the limits of language-- sparked others to similar boldness.

Thomas A. Tweed, in an essay "Night-Stand Buddhists and Other Creatures" ("Westward Dharma," eds. Charles S. Prebish & Martin Baumann, U Cal P, 2002: 17-33), classifies on page 21 the titular varietal apart from converts or adherents but also separate from dabblers or posers. (Yes, I reviewed it too on Amazon and will on this blog.) Bookish sympathizers at a discreet distance hearken back to the Theosophists and New Age pioneers of a century ago; see Rick Fields' "When the Swans Came to the Lake" for much more on how America imports Buddhism's productions exporting the ineffable and impermeable in packaged, labelled, commodified fashion. Inevitably.

Paine makes an helpful analogy on pg. 15 to second-language learning here. (He does not mention Fields, Tweed, Baumann, or Prebish: leading historians on Buddhism's dissemination; such omissions or lacunae Paine defends for the general reader's ease, but I restore references however pedantic for any unenlightened reader stumbling upon my lonely blog post.) Paine discusses how we know language's workings better if we speak more than one. If we speak just one language, we tend not to think about this; it seems our "natural" voice. Yet, if we learn another language, "you likely won't consider it the only tongue God speaks." (Me on more of this: "Kissing Through A Veil? Prayer in Another Language.") My wife, writing to Jewish prisoners, told me that one of her correspondents heard from a Chabad chaplain that "G-d only hears Hebrew for prayers."

Elaborating this metaphor, and echoing Merton's ecumenical quest in Asia, a believer may find that he or she can benefit from the other religion without converting or making obesiance to statues or burning incense. That rabbi may disagree with such translation skills on behalf of Adonai, but worldlier readers, myself included, turn to "spirituality" beyond that denomination into which we were born (or baptized as me) for instruction. This may be a form of "practice," Paine suggests, even as one persists in being a native speaker-- or adherent or skeptic or shopper. A second language speaker may lack a monolinguist's (or monologist's?) conviction that he or she boasts a better language than any other; but this learner gains by openness.

The "night-stand" accidental Buddhist defines a Princeton lit-crit feminist post-deconstructionist who did not want her real name used in Paine's account for fear of her reputation. She sets aside, probably by her own bed, her Buddhist reading for the morning, to sample slowly, as opposed to the novels she devours nightly. She remains hesitant from asserting any public form of identification. Meditating as learned from books, Paine opines, "may be like learning to swim while in a desert by reading a manual," but it does ease her irascible nature. I reckon this trait may be endemic to anyone today in hectic academia; however, I lack "Christine's" Ivy League tenure. Meanwhile, she wonders if it's a passing fad or an ultimate, life-shattering transformation that even if it takes a million lives to ripen, is worth her wait.

It gives her, Paine interprets, a jolt that commentaries upon critiques about texts after authors over centuries in the well-trodden path of humanist academia can no longer provide. She recalls, as an English professor, C.S. Lewis' warning: "A Christian should not manufacture hypothetical tragedies and then imagine his faith insufficient to withstand them." (240) Lewis, as Oxford's other renowned medievalist, might have welcomed her acknowledgment. For, in the West, Tibetan teaching's the last medieval, so to speak, transmission of an entirely preserved and intact line of thinking isolated for a millennium or more. Perhaps, Tolkien could liken this time-travel ("from the Abbey of St. Denis to downtown Manhattan" [Paine, 13]) to hearing Caedmon, or Merton to listening to Bernard of Clairvaux. I add that not even "Christine"'s favored mentors, Camille Paglia for all her charm or Michel Foucault for all his transgressions, might convey such a marvelous frisson as the lysergic revelations dharma may hold for Tibet's adepts.

Can the adoption, gently and cautiously, of this dharma survive the shock of the move? Does its tragic fate at the hands of Communist China and its necessary flight beyond the Himalayas now fulfill the prophecy of its introducer into Tibet, Padmasambhava, who predicted in his own early Middle Ages that "when horses run of wheels" that his teaching would enter the West? I wondered in my review of "Re-Enchantment" if this would really happen, or like the more austere discipline of Zen (or the Trappists for that matter), it would after an initial splash of boho novelty settle, as I suppose Merton's readers of SSM in a post-Vatican II era must have found, into a mundane series of compromises.

For, as Sam found when returning to the Shire, the machines had entered Middle-Earth. No less than the trains to Lhasa today, full of Han Chinese immigrants brought to overwhelm the natives, where Tibetan cannot be taught in schools after 1500 years of the dharma and a nation where its people legendarily at least lived as peacefully as hobbits. Sauron or Mao, Wal-Mart or celibacy, "Zen" as the label on my wife's room freshener and Trader Joe's coffee or "Frodo Lives!" buttons: ideals always meet commerce in a world where consumers look for enlightenment's coy wink.

URLs: I typed in "Buddhism" & "Tolkien"; the best I found: "A Buddhist Reading of J.R.R. Tolkien" as a brief essay from Arrow River Forest Hermitage. Wisdom Publisher's page on David Loy & Linda Goodhew's "The Dharma of Dragons & Daemons: Buddhist Themes in Modern Fantasy." David Loy's printed version of a 2004 talk: "The Dharma of the Rings: A Myth for Engaged Buddhism?". Finally, "Dark Zen" muses on his own meditation practice and refers to sensory overstimulation while lauding LotR's incorporation, if unwittingly, of accidental dharma even as such entertainment also adds to the problem of too much to see and do, too little time spent "just sitting" and asking why we must see so much, do it-- and I guess then to read about it!

Photo of Merton & the Dalai Lama via "Against the Grain" blogpost on same. I had written this three months ago but let it sit. I figured it's ripened now after my own "Kissing the Veil" and this entry by "Bo" on "The Expvlsion of the Blatant Beast" (a closed blog; sample his open counterpart of sorts, "The Cantos of Mvtabilitie"). In his "Chanting the Arwen" (27 Sept. '09) "Bo" discusses Sindarin, based on Welsh, and the power of language and myth to captivate and inspire literary creation by medievalists today.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Jung, Hildegard & Beatus: 3 Bold Visions

"The Holy Grail of the Unconscious" Sara Corbett 9-20-09 New York Times Magazine. Click on image for higher resolution. I found out about this forthcoming "Liber Novus" of Carl Jung, which he inscribed and illustrated, ca. 1916-30 It reminded me of another Germanic artist, and a Spanish one: both from medieval times, but sharing vivid colors, bold graphics, and memorable craft. What do you think of their juxtaposition? I have better comparisons for Hildegard-related illustrations in my mind; I wish I could provide closer examples, but Web image variety's quite scanty. Visions stay elusive.

"The Dragon Gives His Power to the Beast" Beatus de Facundus (folio 191v). 1047, Spanish commentary on the Book of the Apocalypse. These illustrations inspired passages in Umberto Eco's great novel about medieval learning, "The Name of the Rose."

Hildegard of Bingen's been elevated practically to New Age Goddess rank the past twenty-five years, but she's a formidable defender of orthodoxy, even if she stood up to a pope. Her visions made her famous, if belatedly; so today her music. Her writings earned visualization as in this codex of her "Scivias.""Der mystische Leib." Meister des Hildegardis Codex Scivis: 1165, Germany.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Kissing through a veil: prayer in another language

Gimme, Thanks, Oops, Wow: 4 ways we pray? Zev Chafets in "The Right Way to Pray" (9-20-09 New York Times Magazine) interviews Rabbi Marc Gellmann. My wife duly commented on his reduction here: "Wow" I'd add that I'm intrigued by the ever-inventive Reform movement's expansion of how we pray, as well as its compression of what many'd relegate to antiquity as petitions derived from three-thousand-year old plaints to a jealous God.

For instance, it never occured to me any more than the bearded trio of patriarchs, or even their more-than-three matriarchs I hazard, to have a prayer relating a sex-change. Similarly, this transference of a prayer pitched at the gay community sanctifies sex with a partner you never caught even the first name of. This unsettles me but I find it poignant. Not sure how widespread the need for this scriptural interpretation may be for most congregations, but that may reflect my tame upbringing. Even in the other sinful city of California. Inevitably if practically, ironically advancing stereotypes even as it undermines them for outreach by cleverly transforming sordid longings into sacred yearnings, this exegesis comes from our rival Golden State locale where you'd expect. Chafets:
And a predominantly gay synagogue in San Francisco, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, has composed its own prayer to be said after anonymous sex. “In the dark, in a strange place, our father Jacob encountered a stranger with whom he grappled all night,” a reference to the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with an angel. “He never knew the stranger’s name, yet their encounter was a blessing which turned Jacob into Israel and made him realize, I have seen God face to face.” The prayer asks God — “who created passion and wove it throughout creation” — to bless casual sex and turn it into a blessing “that allows us to both touch and see the Divine.”
Chafets goes on immediately to the four types of prayer, but I repeat his words here in their wider context for appreciation before elaborating my own thoughts.
Rabbi Gellman doesn’t get involved in the midnight grappling of his congregation, anonymous or otherwise, and he prefers tried-and-true prayers to exotic new ones. “I think it’s important to use Hebrew, saying the traditional words, even if you don’t exactly know their meaning,” he said.

“Praying in English is like kissing through a veil,” one of the young assistants said.

“In the old days,” Gellman said, “cantors made the women cry. Now they just want to do performance pieces. And congregational singalongs aren’t the Jewish way of praying. Our prayers are meant to be chanted rhythmically.”

“Is that how you do it here?” I asked.

Gellman gave me a long look. He and I grew up in the same Reform tradition. Both of us know how well mumbling Hebrew prayers would go over with the Reform Jews of Melville, Long Island.

“I’m saying that techniques can make a difference,” Gellman said. “Like wrapping yourself in a prayer shawl if you want to shut out the world. But really, when you come right down to it, there are only four basic prayers. Gimme! Thanks! Oops! and Wow!”
Does the holy language matter? I reckon that when you skip your own mother tongue and daven in Hebrew or chant in Tibetan or sing in Latin, this may free up your deeper contemplative spirit. Ge'ez still clung to by Ethiopians and Old Church Slavonic by Orthodox: derided by many as empty as Sanskrit for today's Hindus, but in the ancient tongue, learning and lore rest if among, as they age, a dwindling few.

As a scholar of sorts, I understand both the appeal of the arcane and the exasperation of the modern listener who expects not to be lulled but stimulated. Yet, by detaching yourself from the language you use everyday, you find yourself entering the venerable groove, that like an old childhood jingle or nursery rhyme sticks with you half a century later, however irritatingly or comfortingly. This may equate the liturgical language with a reversion to the cradle, but it also may show the need for roots, for tradition, that so many revisers obliterate as they try to make their religion exactly like every other part of their mundane, predictable lives. We seek difference in our sacred worship, not only similarity to the profane. If there was no difference, why cross a threshold? Why bother attending?

We mortals crave mystery. We like make-up and costumes and Halloween. Why make the clergy as dully dressed as the laity? When you demolish the sensational, the gaudy, the captivating, you rip the veil off the Holy of Holies. You may please rationalists, but we lose the sense of wonder that religion brings. Having through "Belief-O-Matic at beliefnet.com" (a site covered by Chafets) verified myself as M-O-R "spiritual straddler" between religious structure and my agnostic, quietist, and non-dogmatic tenets, I may be a poor candidate for plumbing the numinous. "What Religion Are You?" results: Neo-pagan & Mahayana Buddhist scored me 100%; Judaism came in about #18 out of 27 flavors, with my childhood faith dead last, tellingly. Still, I'm baptized forever, so I'm told. Pascal's wager?

Thomas Merton: "The real journey in life is interior." I've always yearned for transcendence. This quixotic quest brings me into existential reality rather than fairy tale. Romanticized pagan vs. ultimate nothingness. For most of my peers, this may be too harsh a price to pay. We need the veils around the tabernacle, the canopy that shrouds the Torah, the distance from the altar, the sacrifice, the sacrament.

Putting the Mass into the vernacular, or for Reform Jews the service into English, deracinated it. In the name of relevance, it also stripped the awe from the encounter of people with their Creator. A Nonconformist Welsh chapel, a Mennonite altar, or a Quaker meeting hall possess their own austere power, but why make the panoply of a baroque Catholic basilica into a Calvinist model? My mom wept when she entered, circa 1970, our parish church remodelled and finally unveiled. Post-Vatican II reforms had culminated. Too young for a memory of the Latin Mass, I could still remember as a child the dismantling over Sundays as we clunkily abandoned the Latin remnants translated into interim English. Now, the makeover was complete, in the liturgy and the sanctuary. The candles gone, the tabernacle on the side, the rail vanished, the crucifix replaced. Pews were behind the pulled-out altar so a choir could sit there. A giant wooden framework towered behind it all. No artwork except felt-lettered banners graced the flourescent-lit walls in stark yellow. "It looks just like a Protestant church," she lamented. "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water" entered the spiral-bound songbook that replaced each family's dogeared missals, full of their colored ribbons among holy cards for those departed.

Earlier, Gellman provides Chafets-- who labels himself an agnostic-- with what's from my experience a more familiar setting for Jewish recitation.
When I described to Gellman the exhilarating atmosphere at the Brooklyn Tabernacle, he sighed with professional envy. “There is no prayer harder than suburban Jewish prayer,” he said. “Our people don’t get emotional in public. The only time I can recall really serious praying was after 9/11. I did 30 funerals around that time. We got 2,000 people at a memorial service. That was transcendent davening.

“Evangelical Christians, Pentecostals, they go to church to pray,” Gellman went on to say. “Why else would they be there? But Jews are different. People come to temple to identify with other Jews, or socialize. The writer Harry Golden once asked his father, who was an atheist, why he went to services every Saturday. The old man told him, ‘My friend Garfinkle goes to talk to God, and I go to talk to Garfinkle.’ There’s a lot of that.”

“At least they come,” I said.

“Sure. But when you have a large percentage at a religious service who aren’t actually praying, it dilutes the quality of the entire experience.”

“Like subprime mortgages on a bank’s balance sheet,” I said. “Toxic Jews.”

Gellman laughed. Two young associate rabbis who were sitting in on the meeting laughed less. Unlike Gellman, they do not have tenure at the congregation. One teaches prayer through yoga. Among her techniques is to encourage mourners to say the Kaddish prayer while standing on their heads, to acknowledge the upsetting nature of death.
I reviewed last week Malachi O'Doherty's "Empty Pulpits: Ireland's Retreat from Religion"; he discusses Rabbi Julia Neuberger's distinction between Christians and Jews. Belonging, for Jews, matters more than bothering about belief in God. That faith comes and goes, but the community endures by ritual and observance. My wife and I, after a Rosh Hoshanah service in which the rabbi-- actually a rabbinical student fifteen years younger than us-- dared to mention socialism and psychology as inspired by Jewish activism, and furthermore brought up God, a subject discussed in most synagogues less often than Christians might expect.

Layne and I pondered similarities between Rabbi Gellman and the presiding rabbinical student. (The leader of the service hails from a prominent leftist family with a well-known lesbian aunt/ local politician who with her brother was a Berkeley Free Speech Movement leader. They in turn came from a clan who were the first kosher butchers in L.A. The president of our temple told us that the rabbi-in-training-- at a post-denominational school-- had to sign a contract promising no overt politicking during her sermons, but her views on the state budget cuts and Obama's health care plan clearly could be discerned. Those who had grown up under Kadar's "socialism with a sort of human face" experiment in post-'56 Hungary from our congregation silently may have differed with her earnest paeans to progressive pieties.)

We also noted that the prayerbook (siddur) for the High Holy Days featured lots of demands that God raise up His Chosen People against yet another round of foes. Obviously, a recurring and necessary petition for most Jews most centuries, I reasoned. She asked if Catholics filled their liturgies with such appeals. I tried to recall, but doubted that they were as full of triumphalist gloats or panicky pleas. The majority has the advantage of not worrying about the little people, the minority, the Other. For the Jews, a constant nagging: what will They think of us? How can we survive? How will we outwith Them? And, what will not only the neighbors say, but our children? What message must be inculcated in the next generation, lest they give in?

With our own sons, I have no idea if and how they will attend any service in their adulthood. Lacking Yiddishkeit, I confess detachment from much of what even my wife finds connects deep in her NPR-filtered kishkes. Yet, twenty-one years ago, what brought us together was our interest not only in music and books but the spirit. Out of this, two restive sons. Given their eclectic background and exposure to a decidedly secular-tinged mindset, I have a feeling they may carry little outward devotion into the doors they may or may not darken. Still, we talk about issues, we question verities, and we encourage them to think for themselves. Where the divine power fits in may be for that power to fit into their lives. If their paths are as unpredictable as those of their parents, they may be in for a few surprises. I've journeyed far from the days of "Blowin' in the Wind" in my parish songbook at the age of nine, after all, myself.

(Illustration for the NYT article by Andrew Rae. Try to enlarge it to see-- cats? mice? prairie dogs? --as they seek too "The Right Way to Pray," God only knows.)

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Sláinte an bhradáin agam

Bíonn ro-té le déanaí. Ní bhíonn mé ro-fuar faoi deireanach. Tá dith agamsa go caitheamh geansaí aríst chomh nuair chuaigh mé go An Tuaisceart na gCalifoirnea-- i mhí Iúil seo caite.

Measaim go mbeadh dúil go maith ormsa féin. Amárach, iarrfainn a caitheamh éadaigh níos tromaí ar feadh samraidh i mball. Deirim go raibh sé is easca a téamh i bhfad uaidh ná fuaradh go hionduil anseo thíos.

Chonaic mé an ghriangraf agam inné go raibh ag tógtha go láthair campála go An Thuas Mhór. Bhí pluca solasta agamsa ansiúd. B'fheídir, bhí sláinte an bhradáin agam.

Anois, bíonn bándearg fósta. Ach, tá fáth difríul a bhfuil agam le dath. Téim istigh gach uair go bhfuil brothallach amuigh.

Ar ndóigh, insionn mo bhean a tí orm ná raibh mé níos áthas leis athbhaile ar thuas. Ní raibh mé i gcónaí ina sneamh. Níl cur baisteach go leor ag imeall mo bhaile anseo.

An foghlaimeodh mé saol sona agamsa ag dul ar thuaidh? Bhuel, is maith liom ag ól te téas. Faighim aon bhlas ar seomra téas agus oíche bhrádánach leis a leabhar maith in aice leis mo chathair compordach agamsa.

The "health of the salmon" on me.

I'm too warm lately. I'm not too cool recently. I've got a need myself to wear a sweater again like when I went to the North of California-- in the past month of July.

I reckon that'd be a good desire for me myself. In the future, I would seek to put on heavier clothes during summer elsewhere. I say it's far easier to warm up far away than to cool down usually, down here.

I saw a photo of me yesterday that was taken at the campground at Big Sur. I had pink cheeks on me there. Perhaps, I had the "health of the salmon on me" (="the pink of health" in Irish).

Now, I'm pink also. But, there's a different reason for my color. I warm up inside every time it's heating up outside.

Of course, my wife tells me that I wouldn't be cheerful with a second home northwards. I have not lived in the snow. It does not pour rain a lot around my house here.

Could I learn to live a happy life going up north? Well, drinking warm tea pleases me. I could find a taste for a warm room and a cold drizzly night with a good book next to my comfy chair.

Léiriú le/ illustration by "Kim": "Bradán Feasa Fhionn Mac Cumaill/ The Salmon of Knowledge of Finn McCool"

Friday, September 25, 2009

Aneurin Gareth Thomas' "Luggage from Elsewhere": Book Review

This coming-of-age story spans 1966-82, narrated by a Welsh lad embittered by poverty, colonialism, nuclear threats, sex, drugs, overdoses, murder, and rain. While familiar ingredients in a standard recipe, Thomas does add sobering, poetic observations that enrich the tale. For readers interested in Wales in the "nuclear age", the hippie and punk movements, Thatcherism, and activism, this may prove a worthwhile selection.

In a society where females have only two choices: girl or mother, the narrator's maudlin Mam takes until menopause to become a woman. Her husband, a militantly and comically atheistic womanizer, with his mates down the pub "talked about the future as if there wasn't going to be one." (41) Welsh men later will earn pithy definition: machines converting beer into sperm.

The chapters of the tale told by the nameless narrator unfold out of order. Throughout, it's nearly always dreary. "Greyness wasn't only a colour in those days but a transparent substance that wafted day and night around our streets, a Passover curse that came calling through the keyhole, wandered about the house looking for grey matter, and on entering the brain, turned thoughts and feelings grey." (231)

Nature offers scant escape. One must conjure up one's dreams out of the daily grind. "Below an oil tanker stationed in the distance looked like a castle on a flat blue horizon. Seaweed washed up and dried under the sun as snakeskins. Foam met the grey-green of the sea. I walked along the shore among the sea's bones, passing boys my age playing at being younger with a plastic beach ball carried over the heads of a young family. A woman alone hoping for a lifeguard to stroke oil over her back, whisk her glasses and scarf away and take her back to when she was twenty. Men playing cards and holding in their stomachs, thinking if only the scarf would ask." (138)

The narrator thunders against complacency, the resignation of his people. As a teenager, he's threatened by English gentry for poaching trout in the river of a nation where he thought he could walk freely. As a young adult, he wanders to a hippie camp, but there he finds lassitude as the campers wait for mushrooms to grow under the torrential clouds. Idealism inspires him, desperately. "Our first act was to write on a wall next to the bank on High Street Gorseinon the slogan 'Nid Yw Cymru Ar Werth'. Wales Is Not For Sale." (189) However, they "only got as far as writing NID YW CYMRU before being interrupted and we ran off." The partial slogan stands a few months as testimony to their bravery: it's rendered in English as "WALES IS NOT."

Wales under Thatcher drives the narrator and three friends to lash out. As Bore Coch ("Red Morning"), they issue a manifesto written in English, laboriously translated into Welsh, and back to English. "The last thing we wanted was to sound like an amateurish group that represented nobody and faked the Welsh, which was precisely what we were." (202-3) Nobody prints it.

Later, he will try another slogan which will wind him up in jail. He reflects there on his town, and the Welsh promise of his youth: "Where the children played, the next generation numbed the brain with pinpricks before the comedown of bus shelters covered in porn." (286) While the narrative for my tastes closed far too suddenly, perhaps the new novel by Thomas, titled "Excess Baggage," will continue the story.
(Posted to Amazon U.S. and Britain 9-25-09)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Grahame Davies' "Everything Must Change": Book Review

"She was sick of living like a character in a morality play." Simone Weil's story of her strange self-martyrdom for her mystical ideal of a community she felt exiled from by her very existence, during WWII, has been often told. Grahame Davies expands his Welsh novel, based on his study of Weil, to dramatize her own abnegation alongside that of Meinwen Jones, a contemporary Welsh-language activist, who like Weil feels the tug of rootedness and the agony as one of "Capitalism's sulky runaway children." (214)

Novels of ideas that engage you with convincing characters, realistic events, and a touch of sharp satire along with humanist compassion: very rare. Davies never loses grasp of his complicated narrative juggling as he shows you with wit and insight the costs of sacrificing your life for an ideal. This book flows: every sentence fits.

Neither preachy nor pat, Davies brings a vividly rendered eye and a sharp ear to how we delude ourselves as we compromise youthful ideals so as to survive. As Meinwen's told late on, charm can better challenge, and promotion can triumph where protest may fail. She's let in on this by a Tory politician-- who gains as fair a treatment as does she-- similarly a Fascist student and a German cabbie who voted for Hitler emerge as human as a Dominican priest and a right-wing Christian leader will for Simone. Davies even-handedly observes among a cast of compellingly drawn characters the tensions between giving in and holding out that-- to a limit-- Simone and Meinwen share, while as a storyteller he filters their own strong convictions through those around them who cannot sacrifice themselves for a rarified ideology.

Simone works at a Renault factory but sees it more as if her laboring guide's a Virgil to her Dante; on a farm she marvels at a Van Gogh-like Provencal landscape that her hosts certainly have never seen in any museum. She's always at a remove from her world. She loves it, but she feels the scenes she savors would be fresher if removed from her taint, her sight, her presence. The same dissatisfaction with the body-mind problem, the surrender to the ordinary, the duty to be sensible drives Meinwen to political resistance. Her deep unhappiness stems from the same idealism, but she lacks Simone's curiously unorthodox Catholic vision. As the daughter of two Jews who rejected their faith, her father an atheist and her mother a Catholic convert, Simone's labeled as one of a "race" she tries to reject. Yet, she cannot enter the Church. She stands apart from all she admires. Fittingly, she will be buried on the border of a cemetery, between the Christian and Jewish sections.

Meinwen once hung with other activists in the Welsh Language Movement; for a while in the '80s they tried to separate and live against capitalism by supporting local businesses. Yet, flyblown shops run by old women vanish; inferior products in village stores lure customers to slick global chains; few can afford to live off the land as real estate skyrockets and only the English can buy up the family farms.

An activist's car sums up the hopes of a Celtic, leftist, anarchic Welsh scheme. "The only thing holding it up seemed to be the stickers: Kernow; Breizh; Nuclear Energy? No Thanks; Stop the War; Not in My Name. Words like 'No', 'Not', 'Stop' and 'Never' were prominent on these fading signs of adherence, recording, as they did, a series of attempts, most of them failed, to prevent things from happening. The back of Mei's car was a social history of Welsh radicalism." (204)

The larger tale of how Wales under siege by anglicization is a long one; what's new now is the rate of deracination of the Welsh-speaking heartlands as English home-buyers flood in to pay as the highest bidders for affordable rural splendor. Farms wither, locals emigrate to towns, and their children leave for cities. New Age Celts, patronizing settlers, and Celt-aping crusties fill the valleys. Meinwen lives in the old manse next to a closed chapel, which is bought by spiritual healers from Cheshire playing a didgeridoo. They erase, literally, the signs of the old Nonconformist church's communal and ancestral markers.

Cardiff grows in Welsh speakers, yet without a rural base for culture, can urbane Cymru replace what closed chapels, resentful natives, and displaced incomers call the rest of Wales as it turns a weekend retreat, a bedroom suburb of Merseyside or Bristol? Around an affluent Welsh-speaking cafe, the old landscapes hang as pictures. The customers thrive on media ties, grant money, and investment schemes meant to rescue Wales, but how much success the ordinary people gain's rather suspect. The yuppies boast of Thai holidays, pitches, goods, money. The abandoned vistas of their grandparents hang silently: "All safely preserved under glass."

The relevance of Christian pacifism, the difficulty of protecting land values while allowing for a free market, the longing for roots, and the yearning for fulfillment: these in tangential and direct ways join Simone's campaigns with Meinwen's. Simone's words are recalled by Meinwen: "Whoever is uprooted uproots others. Whoever is rooted himself does not uproot others." (196) Davies does not overdo their many parallels. He frees his plot from a slavish capitulation of one woman's determination as yoked to the other. This eases the heady quality of much of this readable and engrossing presentation of two women's prickly, combative, yet appealingly lofty and admirably noble mindsets. They may be crackpots in the eyes of society, but from such visionaries, legacies endure that may better those who follow. Or, they may warp and crush their weakened standard bearers.

Weil late on left a message worth hearing. Her brilliance confused her confidantes. It shows her mix of earnest evangelism and otherworldly concern. She sought a French-Hellenic-Christian purging of capitalism. Influenced by anarcho-syndicalism, Simone envisioned an intellectual's utopia where ennobled workers could share wisdom, not merely to be worn out by fatigue into foolish drinking or brainless games. This goal may reflect her worldly detachment, but she did try in her adult life to care for, as well as identify, with those less fortunate. Speaking eight languages, she could have been a professor. She chose rather a single woman's mission, in the service of an organic yet ethereal philosophy reified as a tireless if enigmatic vocation.

Here's a typical expression of Simone's mature thought. "No human being should be deprived of what the Greeks named the metaxu, things seen as bridges between the temporal world and the timeless: those relative and mixed blessings, such as home, nation, traditions, culture, which provide warmth and nourishment for the soul and without which, unless one is a saint, human life is impossible..." (250) Simone did strive for sainthood, outside a Christian baptism, estranged from her attenuated Judaism. Meinwen searches daily to recover a Welsh-speaking culture that will sustain her native land and enrich those who live in it, by a language older than English.

The deftness with which Davies evokes the clash of high motives with mundane demands makes the novel lighter, for Simone can be abrupt, abrasive, and lacking in nearly all social graces; Meinwen wonders if she can learn to temper her own isolated devotion. Whether or not she can ease up, or whether she will eerily follow Simone's own self-starvation in a confused attempt to become more saintly in her purified commitment remains for you to discover. (Posted 9-24-09 to British and U.S. Amazon, speaking of global chains...) [Author's website]

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

David Greenslade's "Celtic Hot-Tub": Book Review

Mock Keltic Magickal Artes vs. "the language issue" creates tension in this Welsh poet's first novel. Allegorically tinged, it's more fun than Charles Williams. (Or Raymond.) After a creaky start, characters whir and rant fitfully, under Greenslade's jaundiced eye and pitiless manipulation.

Hugh Cadarn, of course not Welsh but a Brighton-born wizard (nee Clifford Wryneck), fancies himself a Merlinesque oracle: "Channel for the Divinity of these Islands/ with a Timely Message for the Whole Totality of Men." So, he recruits Gomer from Anglesey, a crustie but a native speaker, as an "ovate" to "translate" his "bardic utterances" from the nonsense they are into cod-Cymric. They huddle at "Galatia Home Farm," yet another Englishman's rural retreat in the hills of Gwent. Hugh peddles Galatia's dubious charms at "Celtic Wrestling" fairs and psychic conventions as "a Retreat beyond the Din. Oaks where Seekers can Absorb Teachings of the Great Vates in Sweet Silence." He tries in vain to cash in on the New Age Pagan craze. Runaway Sheena, with her own secrets, joins them in an uneasy menage-a-trois as they try to conjure up venerable earth-spirits.

Meanwhile, Terri Ayre (pronounce the name) with a Ph.D. thesis on "Self-Affirmation" movements in America, freelances gathering antiquarian tracts in the public domain to chop up and publish as pamphlets, books, and website fodder to sell antiquarian "Seltica," as her boss Stone pronounces it, lore to crystal-chanting, moon-worshipping gullible Yanks. She's a hard woman to figure out, as many in this story will learn. Her path into Wales' cultural battleground intersects first with Sieffre, a Welsh-language tutor, and Annie, her host, who paints over English-only signs as a linguistic rebel. He resents "pseudo-Celtic obsession" as "remote" and about as applicable to modern Wales' discontent as is Cleopatra to Cairo today.

Terri argues that if there wasn't some authenticity, nobody'd buy what she's selling. Sieffre finds that what Terri thinks is thriving he sees as collapsing. "At the soggy end of our hard work we get this hijacking. Just when our schools are crap and the population isn't strong enough to promote dreamweavers of its own. We're snuffed out by these myth-snatchers." Sieffre despises the "Awesome Mystery Dish" but Terri contemplates exporting a whole new Celtic Mystery Tradition back to the South, were as Greenslade appears to sketch, many eager customers await "Seltica."

His chapters can be uneven as the broad plot begins in a Southern U.S. setting that appears too familiarly satirized. While Terri's immersion into Welsh seems surprisingly rapid even for a scholar with a doctorate, it lacks the detail that for a non-Welsh reader might have explained necessary details along the way of her mastery of Cymraeg. However, this book's printed by a Welsh-oriented press, and I assume the author expects a more insular audience for his musings on how outsiders bash around the inflated ideal of Wales while ignoring obliviously or insulting patronizingly its less romanticized reality. Gomer vs. Hugh: the conflict endures.

Then, Greenslade begins moving the characters towards Galatia. Joined by a Gullah-speaking black librarian from the Carolinas, Claude, who like other men in this novel will long for Terri's embraces, the story gathers energy as the clever manufacture of a Celtic hot-tub at the rural farm in all its scrap-heaped dereliction fuels a memorable showdown among those who invade Wales in search of wisdom, profit, and exploitation.

Greenslade, although a poet, prefers here with the exception of a wonderful sentence or two (e.g. "Larks pattered like a chorus of tambourines") to dissect mystification in a hard-edged, acerbic, and often pitiless manner. His sex scenes can be more scary than seductive. He gains in pacing and confidence as the novel progresses, and you start to wonder about the inner thoughts of those who he sketches on the outside. Some of the supporting characters feel underwritten, but this may be intentional to highlight what at the heart of everyone in this story pulses as a mystery: you sense unrest and unhappiness shrouds everyone in these pages. The few glimpses of the animal kingdom, as opposed to their masters, hint at the writer's compassion for the weakest trapped among us.

Greenslade lets you in to his figures enough to intrigue, as with Hugh, but not enough to answer all your questions. This may frustrate some readers, but this deft detachment pleased me by its ultimately mythical gloss upon contemporary pilgrims and profiteers. Reliably. falsity's sold as hallowed insight relayed from ages so long past none of us have much of an idea who the Celts were or what they meant. In this ambiguity, scholars, hacks, and posers all come together to bicker over Celtic identity. At Galatia "alchemical" charlatans and "folkloric" adepts both, for Greenslade's purposes, abuse the Welsh natives for their own ill-gotten plunder. It's a sobering lesson for all those enamored of what's sold as Celtic wisdom.

(Posted to Amazon in the U.S. and Britain 9-23-09) Link to brief biography & works: "David Greenslade"

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Malachi O'Doherty's "Empty Pulpits": Book Review

Why has Ireland secularized so suddenly? Can we learn from Catholicism's institutional erosion how entrenched religions may erode elsewhere? Will the Irish evolve into belongers rather than believers?

O'Doherty fills a short book with deep questions. An astute observer of the corroding of another iconic Irish symbol, republicanism ("The Telling Year: Belfast 1972" & "The Trouble with Guns"), his West Belfast upbringing and (unmentioned here but see his memoir "I Was a Teenaged Catholic") hippie-era stint in India under a Hindu guru's tutelage inform his thoughtful investigation. This account leaves out his own story, but it's covered elsewhere. Here, he surveys liberal forces which, since the 1990s most visibly, undermined a supposedly monolithic theocracy.

Not quite: modernization drew many Irish away from agriculturally centered lives where a priest at Mass enforced not so much dogmatic dictate as support, socializing, and stability. My review will delve into detail, for O'Doherty's thesis to my knowledge challenges the standard Usual Suspects: sex abuses by the clergy, immorality transmitted by Dublin 4 media, and Anglo-American hedonism. He argues that the habit of trusting in a priest for advice on one's relationships, one's prospects, and one's soul had weakened as the Irish began listening to talk shows. Audiences applied pop-psychology to handling their own dilemmas as the post-Vatican II Church ignored the problem of evil, dismissed Purgatory and Hell as likely destinations, and downplayed sin. The clergy conservative and liberal often left a less rather than more relevant Church as the enormous outcry over Humanae Vitae weakened any authority of that celibate clergy over a married congregation. All this occured decades before the sex scandals`and clerical abuse reported at century's end.

The subtitle's off. Irish majorities retreat not from "Religion" but its organized, "white ethnic Christian mainstream" manifestations. Britain ebbed, now Ireland. O'Doherty offers the Irish as exhibit A of how quickly a people can abandon organized religion. Although Islam and evangelical Christians claim many, he wonders if their own domination may wither as quickly as the mainstream Western European churches. Yet, how do we measure rates of retreat from verities? O'Doherty compares prayer to masturbation: we'd be perplexed to verify who does it and who doesn't.

Practically, catching up with Europe, Irish use of the local church seems only for rituals. People ignore it but for baptisms, weddings, and funerals; as regular attendance plummets, those churches will close. Converted to cafés, discos, or libraries, Protestant edifices portend the fate of many parishes as vocations vanish, an aging priesthood dies off, and a remnant of clergy obeying conservative (or else they will not be appointed) bishops recite the formulaic dictates from a frustrated papacy bent on enforcing doctrine rejected by "a la carte" Catholics.

These turn away from the "mesmerisation" that compelled their ancestors to act as if they believed, for fear of ostracization. Claire Keegan's novel's cited: "God is an invention created by one man to keep another at a safe distance from his wife and land." (16) But, who could admit this aloud? The thinker of that line still attends Mass. "He knows the power of his neighbour's opinion and will not have it said that he's ever missed a Sunday."

That man's grandchildren sleep in. Not Mass but mass media speaks for them. Not that many articulate their drift from the Church so clearly, but by the rise in out-of-wedlock births, unmarried couples, and divorce, the restraints that compelled rural Irish to hold family together to stay on the land have disappeared along with that way of life when the priest seemed to govern the ritual way of life as if natural.

Pilgrims still climb Croagh Patrick in ancient ritual. Still, "everyone who goes before you damages the path and makes your own way harder." (53) It's more "spiritual than religious" for most faithful now, O'Doherty avers. The Irish convert what was social pressure to into individual options. They exercise along with a longing for transcendence up a rocky sharded path that nobody makes easier on their ascent for any following them. Seems an stubbornly Irish metaphor, somehow.

Collective emotion, O'Doherty knows as a journalist, can substitute for professed fidelity. The media replace the Church for public trust. But, they peddle ambition and avarice alongside sexual liberation and unconventional lifestyles. O'Doherty recognizes the lure of other spiritual messages for a people who may lack deeper awareness of their own abandonment of Catholic piety. How long can such a society endure? He wonders if-- like the British monarchy-- the Church will survive "on nothing but the occasional derision of the same people if it is to survive at all." (74) That is, the potency of space and time once dominated by a ruler over a people in one kingdom or the Church in its subjugated neighbor island can rouse the masses-- as in Pope John Paul II's visit or the death of Princess Diana-- but most of the time it will linger on as a quaint relic.

But, the monarchy dimmed over centuries; why has the Church collapsed so quickly? He touches on a novel insight: the media moralizes now over what the clergy warned us about once: "diet, smoking, alcohol and safe sex". Thrift = recycling; abstinence = safe driving; care for creatures = animal rights. This book's full of these reflections, even if some chapters halt suddenly a few pages on. While I agree with O'Doherty's perspective, the book underplays coverage of many fascinating topics. They appear too sporadic or fitful in their articulation. Editing may be to blame.

For instance, O'Doherty touches on the difficulty Catholics have in switching to Protestantism, rather than vice-versa. The evangelicals attract new Irish migrants as well as those tired of Methodist or Anglican (C of I) models. For Catholics, their congregations, for lack of a worship alternative, stagnate as the parishioners practice a variety of non-Catholic spiritual pursuits separately. O'Doherty for my money in buying this missed his round. Why not interview the abbot of San Francisco's Zen Center, Paul Haller born on the Falls Road, to exemplify a journey away from tradition into ecumenism? Haller's mentioned but in passing and the Black Mountain Belfast Zen center's not at all: a curious oversight given its potential.

Similarly, O'Doherty suggests objections to the late (Fr.) John O'Donoghue's popular "Anam Cara" book and Mary Kenny's "Goodbye to Catholic Ireland" (see my Amazon US review of her revised edition) but fails to elaborate. He refers to Roger Scruton's intriguing comparison of love with religion to counter the New Atheists but this only piques one's interest beyond the single paragraph summary. A predecessor with interests intersecting with O'Doherty's, Desmond Fennell, might have enriched this study. To elucidate a debate between Christopher Hitchens and "lapsed atheist" commentator John Waters (not the outré US filmmaker for you non-Irish readers), Hitchens' rather facile put-downs earn many pages. Nevertheless, Daniel Dennett's evolutionary psychology in "Breaking the Spell" fits perfectly O'Doherty's own speculations. An expert who could have bolstered the book's thesis, Dennett's only named once.

However, quick nods remain to Stephen Pinker and John Grey. They consider moral evolution as a sign of hope-- or at least a way we cope with mystery-- without belittling why many of us, post-Darwin, cling to an irrational yearning for the divine or the metaphysical. Richard Dawkins in a more nuanced manner publicly than Hitchens denigrates believers even if as "moderns" they dismiss fundamentalist tenets. O'Doherty counters this condescension. The last third of his book takes on the New Atheists. He wonders if today's religion isn't measured by declining church attendance, but a "still almost universal" belief in God. "Is it a sense of there being some indefinable spiritual context to our existence which feels stronger and clearer when you are listening to Beethoven or having an orgasm?" (123) This defines religion as provocatively post-denominational. I'm sure many welcome such analogies.

John Waters' weakness, O'Doherty holds, is that one cannot equate the Church with religion. "If the church was not the embodiment of religious sentiment in Ireland, then the collapse of that church cannot be read as the death of such sentiment." (126) Believers agree with naysayers: the Church was dysfunctional. What will replace that stubbornly inculcated "faith of our fathers"? Fatalism grounded in the seasons and the crops, as with religious propitiation of the powers held once to be, cannot serve a suburbanized seeker. A stable congregation sat in a country pew; their grandchildren live apart from stars and cows yet wander on interior journeys.

Ireland encountered secularization later, but when it came the last part of last century, it accelerated. It left many of our generation with memories of hegemony by priests and nuns over psychically fragile people, many uprooted from rural life by its mechanization. As for O'Doherty, those who managed to blaze their own inner path away from Catholicism post-Vatican II had to fend for themselves amidst an outwardly conforming culture where the family enforced fidelity, at least in a superstitious or superficial devotion. For those younger, raised in cities and housing estates, lacking an upbringing when the Church ruled, a maturer model may supplant habit.

While this aspect again deserved more attention, O'Doherty briefly mulls over Rabbi Julia Neuberger's contrast with a Judaism where defining God and demanding obedience is not the norm. Rather, practicing ritual and service "within a community" defines one's religion. "Belief in God was fluid. It came and went." (199) Family and continuity matter more than episcopal dicta or papal encylicals. Of course, Catholicism's vertically enforced rather than laterally interpreted as with Judaism. But, post-Catholic Ireland may blossom if in a more flexible, less fearful direction. New Atheists assume wrongly how a contemporary "religious" follower cannot deviate from the proclamations set down in scripture or pronounced from a pulpit. The rationalists become as fundamentalist in their set-up of a straw man believer as those they chastise for "Iron Age"-codified stupidities as obesiance.

Finally, glancing at how Polish immigrants to Ireland demonstrate in their tentative assimilation the power or lack of from a nation as "Catholic" as was once Ireland, O'Doherty raises a thoughtful case study for comparison. Nigerian arrivals enliven evangelical sects, but these often divide, sectarianism if along newer divisions. O'Doherty strives for fair-minded judgments that respect all who believe and all who confront faith. For the Irish, unpredictably, prophets now emerge as "singer-songwriters, poets and novelists" who summon us "into our bedrooms and down country lanes," he concludes, rather than preaching encyclicals from emptying sanctuaries. (P.S. See my reviews of O'Doherty's "Telling Year" & "I Was a Teenaged Catholic.": posted as was this-- if "Empty" to British Amazon [no U.S. listing] 9-20-09. Crossposted "Teenaged" and "Empty" reviews to my longer review blog, "Not the L.A. Times Book Review.")

Monday, September 21, 2009

Malachi O'Doherty's "The Telling Year: Belfast 1972": Book Review

Living next to an IRA arms dump, how'd you fare covering the Troubles for a Belfast newspaper allied with the Establishment? O'Doherty recalls his job at the Sunday News during Northern Ireland's deadliest escalation. His account blends his coming-of-age with journalistic challenges as he must balance discretion with honesty.

Marked by his name, a native of a West Belfast republican stronghold, O'Doherty explains how he survived 1972 professionally and personally. Fascinated but appalled by the dangers created by many of his Andersonstown neighbors, reporting "would suit my need to be part of the adventure of chaos without my having to be brutal or accept anyone's orders. Journalism would satisfy my detachment from the raw charge of enthusiasm for war which had overtaken so many people around me." (5)

The Sunday edition of the Belfast News Letter (by the way the oldest newspaper in existence, I believe) traditionally had hired Protestants, so O'Doherty, who finds his byline shortened to "Mal" at times, must tread warily. The paper strives for a readership "free to plan a holiday, to move house, to contemplate a changed diet, to ogle girls' bottoms or marvel at those lovely little animals in the zoo, while the city was bombed to meet [Saturday night for the Sunday edition] deadlines and no one knew why-- not even a Westminster MP for a local constituency, who thought we were being invaded by Russians." (30) Such municipal naivete doubtless would not last long in the enclaves where O'Doherty lived, but as he reminds us, much of his province then enjoyed peace and outside a few urban areas, one would not know of the war-torn strife that filled reliably so many front page headlines. Inside his paper, after the "bombs and bullets," it seemed like another British tabloid "unruffled in its petty concerns."

This leads to complications. "There was no etiquette established by which a Catholic might sympathize with a Protestant his neighbour had bombed." (64) Daily outrages, tit-for-tat sectarian shootings, finger-pointing and hypocritical "whataboutery" permeate conversations; often muttered among those at the paper, who awkwardly strive for objectivity despite their own inevitable loyalties and small rebellions.

The jittery nature of enduring everyday strain tells. The IRA wants to make occupied Ulster ungovernable. They claim a defensive campaign but attack not only their uniformed enemies but those they suspect of collaboration. Housewives around his Riverdale estate, he reports anonymously, dope themselves with tranquilizers while the E-Company of the IRA shoots at army patrols and runs into O'Doherty's garden, or a nearby safe house perhaps. He's roughed up by the troops and increasingly fears for his own safety, as he is torn between the British who suspect his allegiance and the IRA who often shoot first and ask no questions later of any they suspect of collaboration or even common decency towards those labelled the enemy.

Half the IRA men and women who'd die this telling year, he notes, were blown up by their own bombs. Often sent off to plant them without timers, they had to get them to their targets or become "own goals" themselves as they were detonated in their transport. It's difficult to measure the cynicism involved here. The tragic destruction from a bomb planted probably by IRA teenaged girls at the Abercorn restaurant of a party of women shopping for their weddings horrified many. Amputees survived. O'Doherty reveals how closely-knit he was with his "working-class" community, those whom the IRA claimed to be liberating. "I danced, drunk, at a party with one of those women 15 years later. She fell over but laughed." (112)

Laughter, unless gallows humor, may have been heard less often among those pressed by the IRA on one side, and the British and their Loyalist paramilitaries with murder squads colluding on the other. Victims could be found at random; left off a taxi on a certain street, dropped off by soldiers in the wrong neighborhood, walking away from a bus in a certain direction: this could mark one for torture and death. "There was no burden the campaign would not impose on the people who lived there." (123) As with his 1998 "The Trouble with Guns," which analyzed the failure of the republican "physical-force" strategy of the Provos, O'Doherty cooly casts a cold eye on all who claimed to free a people whom they bullied, whom some idealized as freedom fighters delighted in subjugating.

His narrative moves briskly. Those less familiar with republican and loyalist turf-battles and Irish history at this time may find themselves outpaced. O'Doherty writes for an Irish audience in the know, but for those sufficiently grounded in the standard studies and "I was there" tales, this should provide a very rare look into one who had to deploy or hide his local identification as he sought to extend his journalistic credentials to report on a very intimate form of combat and destruction.

In the end, he must flee Belfast; he takes the dole and moves to Britain. Readers curious about his life before his journalistic start and what followed in India under a Hindu guru and then back in the North working freelance for the BBC can find "I Was a Teenaged Catholic" (recently reviewed by me on Amazon and this blog).

Lofty justifications for IRA armed struggle fill many memoirs; O'Doherty's dissenting voice speaks for rarely heard West Belfast mindset. From one who could not follow his mates into thirty years of violence, no matter how noble the rhetoric. As a moderate on the paper, "Observer," opined after an infant was shredded by flying glass after a detonation: "Just think of the chat in some 'patriot's' home in 15 or 20 years hence. 'What did you do for the cause, Da?' -- 'I planted a bomb that blew a child into eternity'." (192) That's a boast no IRA first-person narrative that I've read dares to make; heady Fenian drams curdled into bitter dregs. The dram's a blend still peddled by certain defenders today.

(P.S. His forthcoming book's about his formidable father, Barney, a pub owner whose place was bombed by the IRA. This review posted to Amazon British & U.S. 9-20-09. I also reviewed on Amazon-- if British only-- and my blog his analysis "Empty Pulpits: Ireland's Retreat from Religion" that investigates another dismantled icon of Irish life.)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A.A. Gill's "The Angry Island: Hunting the English": Book Review

"Anger is an energy," Johnny Rotten sang. Although uncited here, he speaks for the minority; most repress resentment. According to Gill, the "high-maintenance, self-imposed" English contradict themselves. They hold bile rather than spit. In this, they characterize themselves as restrained and dignified. In fact, they act not in harmony with but despite their inner nature.

"Anger has made the English an ugly race. But then this anger is also the source of England's most admirable achievement: their heroic self-control. It's the daily struggle of not giving in to your natural inclination to run amok with a cricket bat, to spit and bite in a crowded tearoom, that I admire most in the English." (8) Born in Scotland, but raised in England, Gill relates his life of observing a people like but not like himself in humorous, scabrous, and intelligent chapters that roam into the character of a nation of his sullen, clenched, muttering neighbors.

Faces (the National Portrait Gallery's postcards and pictures as a case study), voices (Received Pronunciation gives orders vs. Estuary makes friends), war memorials (to dead dogs as well as dead soldiers), class, humor, and the Cotswolds (compared to a second-hand porn mag passed from satiated customer to greedy buyer), and the ubiquitous "Sorry" prove Gill's first targets. Animals, Drink, Gardens (like churches, best toiled in rather than rested at, for plenty of time to molder in both when dead), Political Correctness (surprisingly, despite his aspersions to the Welsh, Gill as a humorist by journalistic profession favors its civilizing tendencies), and queues follow. The early New Age experiments at Letchworth Garden City and suitably nostalgia (National Trust) close what opens as its first sentence: "This is a collection of prejudice."

I wondered, for lack of material that gained any cross-reference or elaboration, if these appeared as separate essays but no mention of this occurs. This is a persistent fault: these seem as if disparate diatribes, with no core argument to link them. The hectoring tone does wear on after a while, and the information marshalled in service of scorn even for this disaffected Irishman overwhelmed me as a reader less obsessed.

Gill packs erudition into this sociological treatise disguised as a light read. He also writes well. Near his Soho home, he sees a pub with Chelsea v. Newcastle: its "office worker" patrons "waylaid on their way to homes too distant and uninviting to arrive at sober. Everyone was looking up, eyes transfixed at a different corner of the room like so many cats watching moths." (96) Later, he waxes about the rooms above pubs where obsessives meet. He captures the awfulness of a comedy open mike night in one pub, and this often droll, even poignant as well as cruel chapter, "Humor," is the best in the book. "Go into any pub and listen to the groups of boys chuckling in circles. It's not a sound you hear anywhere else." (105)

Outside London, the rest of England molders, for sale to exurbans. In a Cotswolds antique shop, Gill reflects: "The lives that have been trickled and sobbed away in the company of this stuff. The old dolls' houses that reek of musty, miserable, lonely childhoods; the pictures of anonymous fields and buoyant seas that stared out over loveless blameful bedrooms; all the utensils of a Victorian wife worn to blunt, smooth distraction by below-stairs indenture." (114)

This reverberates for me in his adolescent drinking memories, for at fifteen: "Everything is plagiarized, borrowed, or made up out of nothing. Your life's like a Third World gift shop, you keep trying to guess what the rich grown-ups want in the hope that one day you'll become one of them." (136) When you do come of age, you still cannot avoid other English, no matter how far you travel. At an foreign airport, Gill accidently steps in front of a "two-person queue," a middle-aged grumpy couple. He apologizes. "Now, if there's one thing an Englishman can't abide it's an apology before he's finished. Combined with a smile, it's akin to sodomy without an introduction." (172) You need no better introduction to the tone of this "collection of prejudice" by one who knows his captors all too well, and could almost pass for one of them after a year in Scotland and over fifty in England.(Posted to Amazon US 9-17-09)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

"Páistí beag": an scannán

Chonaic mé an scannan seo go cinnte. Bhí mé ag dúil le feiceáil sé ar feadh nóiméid. Rug mé air Dé Domhnach seo caite sa bhaile.

Bhreatnaigh mé leis mo theaglach ar chéile. Bhí scannán ag dulta i muinin leabhar le Tom Perotta. Scríobh sé "Toghchán" riamh; measaim níl an athcóiriú sin a bharrtha ann.

Is maith liomsa an scéal sin is mo. Mar sin, thosaigh mé "Páistí beag" go tnúthánach. Bhí sé chomh maith in aice leis díreach agus a cheapas ach a bheadh stad go tobann beag.

Cheap mé an scannán sin go raibh cósuil an athcóiriú eile níos déanái le Kate Winslet, "Bóthar Réabhlóideach." Thug dhá scannán drochdhuine ag teacht ar ais Na Fobhailte. Caith an dá scéal seo a insint scéil go follosach triu fear leis boc mór. Ar scor ar bith, fuarthas aisteoir cineálach barríocht gach uair.

Chuala an frasa "ocras chuige an dara rogha aige" faoi ag bheith Kate mór le fear eile tamall. Lena chois sin, aontaím go bhfuil focail go ceart ag ceangal an scéal leis "Madame Bovary." Bhí comhar faoi an úrscéal ina scannán go raibh maith liom go leor.

Leanann mí-ádh siad aríst, ochón. B'fhéidir, bhí maith liom an téama liteartha rotheanntásach níos lu agus níos fearr. Mar sin féin, bhí leagan ro-ghnóthach orm.

"Little Children"

I saw this film finally. I had a desire to see it for a while. I caught it last Sunday at home.

I watched it with my family together. The film was based on a book by Tom Perotta. He wrote "Election" before; I think there's no adaptation that surpasses it.

I liked that story exceedingly. Therefore, I started "Little Children" with eager expectations. It came up near to my expectations but it stopped short a bit.

I thought that the film was similar to another more recent adaptation with Kate Winslet, "Revolutionary Road." Two films brought a bad character coming back to Suburbia. Both stories had to tell a moral obviously through a man with a public disgrace. However, somebody got a character actor "trying too hard" each time.

I heard the phrase "hunger for an alternative" about Kate "being great on another man for a spell" (="having an affair" in Irish). Moreover, I agree that these words are right joining the story with "Madame Bovary." There was a conversation about the novel that I liked a lot in the film.

Misfortune follows them, alas, again. Perhaps too-familiar a literary theme pleased me more or less. All the same, it was too busy a version for me.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Belief-O-Matic: What's Your Faith & Spiritual Type?

This site assumes no liability for the state of your soul. Classified as "entertainment," it confirmed hunches yet surprised me at how I'd lapsed from my childhood faith, now dead last out of 27 possibilities. I wish I wasn't so close to being half of #12, and I'm uncertain what #11 means vs. #4-- which makes me sound flaky-- but it will give me thoughts to ponder as this weekend our family attends services at a denomination between #17 & 19 on the spectrum, but not #18, if you can figure that riddle out. My potato-famished ancestors roll in boggy graves. But their pagan forebears may smile down upon my return to a primitive, if romanticized, fold. Not sure how Druids or dogmatic Papists would regard Buddha's Great Vehicle, however.

Take the "Belief-O-Matic Quiz: What's Your Faith?" While answering, it looked mighty close to Hinduism for me, and that Jainism tilt makes me wonder, as it'd be difficult for me to wear a mask to avoid inhaling insects. My diligence for the care of my soul ensued after my wife sent me an e-mail headed "my test results," which I admit upset me before opening the contents. Luckily, a benign diagnosis. Unless you're one of the 44% of my fellow citizens who believe our world was created 10,000 years ago in six days. And who presumably relegate me and mine as Satan's pals. The anti-Darwinians should meet our neighbors, affable second-generation hippie vegans.

My wife got #1 for my #4, so I guess we're aligned. Her #1: Unitarian Universalist; 98% for Liberal Quaker, New Age and Neo-Pagan nearly there. Intriguingly, her own faith of sorts growing up's at #7, so she strayed less from her own attenuated roots. Strange, as I consider myself culturally Catholic, but in terms of believing any of the faith of my fathers, 13%/#27 seems to settle that hash.

The site explains: Even if YOU don't know what faith you are, Belief-O-Matic™ knows. Answer 20 questions about your concept of God, the afterlife, human nature, and more, and Belief-O-Matic™ will tell you what religion (if any) you practice...or ought to consider practicing. Warning: Belief-O-Matic™ assumes no legal liability for the ultimate fate of your soul.My warning: the site has zillions of pop-up ads you must click through and you're expected to "register" with them before sending on the results, so I opted out for the old cut-and-paste.

A Personality quiz about your religious and spiritual beliefs:

Your Results:
The top score on the list below represents the faith that Belief-O-Matic, in its less than infinite wisdom, thinks most closely matches your beliefs. However, even a score of 100% does not mean that your views are all shared by this faith, or vice versa.

Belief-O-Matic then lists another 26 faiths in order of how much they have in common with your professed beliefs. The higher a faith appears on this list, the more closely it aligns with your thinking.

1. Mahayana Buddhism (100%)
2. Neo-Pagan (100%)
3. Unitarian Universalism (94%)
4. New Age (91%)
5. Liberal Quakers (84%)
6. Theravada Buddhism (81%)
7. Hinduism (75%)
8. Jainism (74%)
9. Taoism (67%)
10. Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (64%)
11. New Thought (56%)
12. Scientology (56%)
13. Secular Humanism (56%)
14. Sikhism (55%)
15. Orthodox Quaker (45%)
16. Christian Science (Church of Christ, Scientist) (43%)
17. Reform Judaism (43%)
18. Baha'i Faith (32%)
19. Orthodox Judaism (29%)
20. Nontheist (28%)
21. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) (26%)
22. Jehovah's Witness (26%)
23. Seventh Day Adventist (25%)
24. Islam (20%)
25. Mainline to Conservative Christian/Protestant (19%)
26. Eastern Orthodox (13%)
27. Roman Catholic (13%)

My wife and I scored the same on a related quiz you can link to at BeliefNet: "What Spiritual Type Are You?" This allows more flexibility as you'd expect for some of your judgments, but compliments the "religious" one well. This time, I "felt" I answered more questions traditionally than the "religious" one, which may reflect in my middling, lukewarm score. As Jesus generously mused about we ditherers, us spiritually tepid: He'd vomit 'em outta His ever-lovin' mouth. Typical big-city Californians, here's what I/we as sun-dazed scatterbrains scored:

Quiz: What's Your Spiritual Type?

You scored 53, on a scale of 25 to 100. Here's how to interpret your score:
25 - 29 Hardcore Skeptic -- but interested or you wouldn't be here!
30 - 39 Spiritual Dabbler -- Open to spiritual matters but far from impressed
40 - 49 Active Spiritual Seeker -- Spiritual but turned off by organized religion
50 - 59 Spiritual Straddler -- One foot in traditional religion, one foot in free-form spirituality
60 - 69 Old-fashioned Seeker -- Happy with my religion but searching for the right expression of it
70 - 79 Questioning Believer -- You have doubts about the particulars but not the Big Stuff
80 - 89 Confident Believer -- You have little doubt you've found the right path
90 - 100 Candidate for Clergy

[Photo: "Great Tattoo Designs Blog: Cross Tattoos"]

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Simon Young's "A.D. 500": Book Review

What if a Byzantine delegation travelled to the British Isles in the chaos after the Romans left and the Saxons invaded? Young collates what's extant about British Celts, Welsh, Irish, Picts, Scots, and Saxons. He dramatizes this material as if recorded by a scribe editing the earlier ambassadors' log-book. The conceit reveals information that I predict even specialists will learn from, and the generalist will enjoy. It's instruction made entertaining, thoughtful, and even wryly witty.

Young's drawn upon archeological and historical reports that are up-to-date. He favors a rather earnest tone, but this reflects the mood he figures the Greeks would have assumed in reporting the wonders and barbarities they, emissaries from Constantinople, would have witnessed through skeptical, jaundiced, yet credulous eyes. I found the earlier material, as the dozen delegates sail up the Atlantic fringe to land around Cornwall to wander through the Pretanic homelands into Wales, rather familiar, but this time period for all its lack of substantial extant detail has been scoured by scholars. Similarly, the Irish portion must take in later accounts that are back-dated to allow us more insight into customs that presumably lasted long, and went back earlier, for the Celts.

The book does lumber along with the Greek trekkers, stringing along anecdotes but often-- if inevitably given the gaps we face in the historical record-- they seem more strung along than intertwined. As Young admits in his preface: "Though the following pages may not satisfy professorial standards of history, it is far more gratifying for reader and author alike to place the little beads of sixth-century knowledge on a fictional string, than don rubber gloves and forensically isolate them, putting each in its own sterile museum box." (x) I must agree.

I liked the Pict portion, for all its necessarily scantiness, for this people seems the most enigmatic for us. Going down through Scotland, when the party crosses the ruined Roman walls that bordered the war zones of what became England, the narrative quickens and the sense of excitement in the traveller's journals can be felt. "The days of glory, these, when legionaries knelt beside the writhing bodies of dying Picts and tried to read in vain the strange tattoos they found there" strikes the exact tone of a chronicler. (134-5) The dangers surrounding foreigners caught between the crumbling defenses of the Christianized, semi-Romanized remnants of British Celts and the ever-encroaching pagan, brutal, Saxon hordes gain vivid retelling. "In fact, modern Londinium is like a sandcastle barracked by the sea, where a child has begun to dig out its finely sculpted innards to add a few more desperate inches to its walls." (192)

This is a short book, that flows in parts-- especially in the pre-"English" section and also at the end that does not wrap up the events neatly-- too awkwardly due to the Young's task of integrating lore and data into the mindset of a sixth-century scholar editing eyewitness journals of the sights they saw in turn rumored or reckoned, taken in reality from fragmented evidence and textual scraps. Yet, he does manage to convey the horror and wonder that must have greeted perhaps the real Greeks that made it, perhaps from a couple of hints in the records, that far north. His book concludes with abundant references that support his hedges and his claims. For that reason, with hesitations, I recommend it. There's doubtless no easier way for the inquiring non-academic to dip into this century's British and Irish realms. From here, of course, the original texts and the scholarly journals can be entered. This remains my favorite period of history, for we know so little still about what fills imaginatively, if hesitantly, two hundred pages here. (Posted to Amazon U.S. and Britain, 9-17-09)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Captain Lavender

In threes, I find mentions of lavender lately. Closest I come to it's a laundry cachet from Trader Joe's. Even with my poor sense of smell, it reminds me of our one trip up past Tacoma to Port Angeles, far up the Strait of Juan de Fuca, across Puget Sound. Two years ago, in drizzle alternated with rainbows, my wife and I took her dad's ashes-- the half we hadn't slipped out of a baggie off Seattle's Space Needle-- to the hardscrabble town where he grew up with his relatives in the Depression. A failed hotel or boardinghouse nobody's left to point us to, found his family as desperate as he would be, eating blackberries that grew wild around Seattle then and scarfing whatever he could sneak from a fortuitous job as a grocery delivery boy. He'd regale me with the same anecdotes over and over-- as I already tell these now of where his ashes wound up, the only ending I can add to his own story.

We drove past Sequim, the last stop before Port Angeles. We stopped for Layne to use the restroom I suppose and grab one of her diet sodas she craves so desperately. The place had the fake-Western facades in its humble downtown "historic" district but the big-box stores threatened in an under-construction sign in a lot across the street, and the other side of the highway a massive subdivision filled a meadow. Did the dot.com Microsoft-fueled boom echo this far? However, "The Lavender Capital of America" if not the world (not sure how the French felt about that boast) managed to convince us that, a season earlier than the late autumn when we travelled the Cascades together, some fields filled not with stucco but with that purplish barb.

This morning, I'll teach a story by a longtime fellow son of the Port, Raymond Carver, who may not have been born there but in Yakima, but who with his wife, a local, Tess Gallagher, managed despite his teaching creative writing at Syracuse to remain close to the Northwestern shore. Tess in her introduction to the 1990 tribute "Carver Country" speaks of the "sense of removal and wildness on the forested Olympic Peninsula with the snow-covered Olympic Mountains, bordered by the moody waters of the Strait between Canada and America" that encouraged Ray to find solitude in "the stories and poems that would enlarge his work."

The book she co-edited has b/w photos of the landscape and people inhabiting Ray's work: from Yakima down to Arcata, up from Sacramento to Port Angeles, you see the everyday folks that lived in his fiction and verse. "Cathedral" I first read under my wife's tutelage, for Carver's one of her favorite writers. Despite my long march through English Lit (and I admit American contemporary fiction's not my specialty), I'd never read Carver before-- she'd used his stories for her adult ESL classes.

My college students, many not much advanced beyond ESL, love "Cathedral"; luckily despite my lack of choice of the anthology I use for my one course remaining (when it's not cancelled for lack of enrollment) that's an intro to lit, that story keeps appearing in the new textbook. In two hours, after Joyce's "The Boarding House," we will enter Carver Country. Bob Adelman's photo of Jerry Carriveau I cannot reproduce here, but this blind man became the inspiration for "Robert" in this tale told by a resentful, insular man whose wife brings her old male blind friend home for dinner. Carver opens up the silences of the average Joe, as my students hear those they know.

In her introduction, Ray's wife Tess tells of Sequim, "fifteen minutes away from Port Angeles." She's in a fine shot, gracing a poem "In A Marine Light Near Sequim, Washington." I like her picture better than his verse, but Ray does evoke the setting well as it begins: "The green fields were beginning,. And the tall, white/ farmhouses after the tidal flats and those little sand crabs/ that were ready to run, or else turn and square off, if/ we moved the rock they lived under. The languor/ of that subdued afternoon. The beauty of driving/ that country road [. . .]

Tess crouches for Adelman's camera down in the middle of a field there that may be lavender. Behind her stretches fields and foliage that remind me of Ireland, a place where twenty years after this book appeared after her husband's death, she spends part of her time living into the old age Ray never found, with a spry seanachie. To me, monochrome, Sequim's flora looks like chaparral gone to thistle that tries to grow on my own native city's hills, unless shorn for mandated brush clearance to avoid the fires that nature demands-- as we saw two weeks ago with the blazes that consumed a quarter of the immense Angeles National Forest above Los Angeles-- but that man and stucco forbid.

An ex-urban refugee who fled concrete for up North told me of lavender's calming effect. We arrived in its "pacific" heartland too late: the signs told of the nurseries open from spring 'til midsummer. Earlier, it surrounds many places in the Cascades. I suppose it stretches far across the latitude of cooler climes nearer Arctic winds and maritime breezes. An air we never sniff down here in smoggy heat.

Paul Muldoon in a poem that I cannot forget despite my marked inability to keep lines of poetry in mind, penned the powerfully political poem "Meeting the British" (1987). I taught this in a different literature class, as a doctoral student at UCLA, to a different cadre of students:

We met the British in the dead of winter.
The sky was lavender

and the snow lavender-blue.
I could hear, far below,

the sound of two streams coming together
(both were frozen over)

and, no less strange,
myself calling out in French

across that forest-
clearing. Neither General Jeffrey Amherst

nor Colonel Henry Bouquet
could stomach our willow-tobacco.

As for the unusual
scent when the Colonel shook out his hand-

kerchief: C'est la lavande,
une fleur mauve comme le ciel.

They gave us six fishhooks
and two blankets embroidered with smallpox.

"A mauve flower like the sky"-- a flower as heaven. Innocent beauty, natural doom. Hidden in nature, both wonder and threat always lurk. A foretaste of death, a harbinger of release.

While this claim that the British gave the Indians blankets intentionally larded with infection has been debated, for a Northern Irish poet, this claim does not surprise those of us, like Tess and myself I'd reckon, who with our mother's milk imbibe such race memories in our own combative, resentful DNA no matter how far away from Ireland we may have been born on the Left Coast of America the other side of French calls and British responses. Unlike Paul Muldoon and this next poet, we may not have grown up under the British, but ancestral patterns groove deep. So do the reveries in our primal olfactory-memory match as urged on by flowers, thankfully.

Another Northern (the adjective is necessary) Irish poet, Belfast-born Medbh McGuckian, in the title poem in her 1994 collection, published her short verse "Captain Lavender":

Night-hours. The edge of a fuller moon
waits among the interlocking patterns
of a flier's sky.

Sperm names, ovum names, push inside
each other. We are half-taught
our real names, from other lives.

Emphasise your eyes. Be my flare-
path, my uncold begetter,
my air-minded bird-sense.

Today lavender may revive not dim gloom but bright vigor. We lavish its scent into our laundry. No matter how chemical or manufactured, we want our blankets too freed of dangerous smells and nasty odors. For Muldoon, the captain's handkerchief must be scoured as soft as the sky above him and the Indians, who struggle in the speaker's voice to understand the invader Colonel Henry Bouquet--nice surname-- as they try to unlock the mystery of the fragrance that transcends language. But the lavender symbolizes and furthers their encounter, native against militia, fated to be fatal.

For McGuckian, Muldoon's contemporary, in this entry as part of a poem cycle after her father's death (and later the year that Tess posed in the field, her Ray would die of cancer and be buried in Port Angeles), the sperm name enters the woman to jostle along the ovum name, the Captain joining Lavender. Deep beyond what can be stained which demands a washing by hand or machine. Beyond Muldoon's gulled tribesman, fumbling phrases that cannot comprehend the truth of the skin trade, McGuckian reconciles the clash between peoples, the war between the sexes. By reclaiming "real names" we might claw back humanity from "an uncold begetter." We may free human bonds from snares and traps. Beyond the field of blooms, we may soar in sex and aesthetics into "air-bound bird-sense." In the "sound of two streams coming together," deep inside, invigorated by what surrounds us, we restore a purity simple as a Sequim field after soiling our garments in fire-ashen dust far south.

(P.S. I wrote more about Tess Gallagher and the Trip Up There in two 2007 posts, one "Samhain" November 1, the other October 10 "Space Needle" on this blog.) Photo by Tom Dempsey: "Purple Haze Farm, Sequim, WA."